the autogeography of a no/body
Between the age of eighteen and nineteen I was single. Not celibate, single. I had a great time. Living in my first house-share, surviving on bad bolognaise, learning how to stand on my own two feet, mostly by falling flat on my face. Yes. Those were the days, when summer meant a kind of freedom, because I was still young enough and daft enough to believe in such warmth. Kick off your shoes, dance in the street; and I did, thinking hot concrete paving slabs were a luxurious feather feed. Everything tickled me.
In late August I went to visit my sister in Israel. I’d not been before, so she made a fuss, a big fuss. I was taken to the caves by the Lebanese border, Megiddo, Metzada, the Galil, a nature reserve full of frisky ostriches who kept trying to fuck our large, black car and, finally, Eilat, where my brother-in-law attempted to smuggle some fire coral out of the sea in his swimming shorts only to discover exactly why it’s called fire coral.
My sister’s second child, a girl, was six weeks old. Pretty thing. And I love babies, always have. I played with her, sang to her. She liked my rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’. I didn’t know the words. It doesn’t matter with a baby. ‘Oh wah, oh wah, oh wah, oh wah, a-tri-aling aling aling ganja’. She smiled as I lay back, holding her up in the air above my head, wondering if my sister had noticed I’d just said the word ‘ganja’.
We sat by the pool, slapped out out sun loungers, diving into the water or shade every ten minutes or so. It was hot, fucking hot. Coming out of the hotel room was like putting your head into a blast furnace – apparently, but I’ve never even seen a blast furnace let alone put my head in one. I like heat that sucks the air out of your lungs and turns it to chalk in your mouth. It feels big. And big feels real. And real feels like you’re living it, right down in your belly and boots.
I wasn’t wearing boots.
There was music, piped over an intellectually sensitive stereo, tinkling along with the water and shadows and trickling sweat. Oh yes. And it was designed to add to the experience, because anything that detracted would have been terribly something, Eastern European I think, Ashkenazi perhaps, although such a word sounds so wonderfully romantic, stuffed as it is with history and verbosity (the two go hand in hand). We’re white here. White and sizzling, like sausages, kosher sausages.
Drenched in heat I lay perfectly still. My sister’s eldest child, a two year old boy, moved around in abstract play circles. There was a towel on his head. He kept rearranging the plastic furniture. “Mamma, mamma,” looking for her to respond, reassure. She smiled back at him, poked his fat tummy, at one point snatched him up and pulled him close to her, put her mouth in his neck, blew raspberries, and he squealed, wriggled out of her clutches, collapsed onto the ground, kicking, writhing and laughing as if he was going to be sick, but she wouldn’t let him go, she just wouldn’t, and I thought maybe his squeals were becoming screams, convulsive, as she folded him up in her arms and covered him with her body.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said, over and over again, burying her face in his curly brown hair. She clung to him. I watched his chubby hands, knuckles inverted to form dimples, soft finger nails, trying to scrabble away. After a minute she let him escape and he ran, flat footedly, to the edge of the pool, her eyes trailing after him, measuring the distance of her concern.
Sensing my gaze, she turned briefly to match it with her own. We rarely looked directly at one another, maybe because we thought we’d already seen everything there was, mirror wise, family wise. Don’t know. My brother-in-law drifted into view, wearing a battered panama. It was fine. The scene. Complete. And then the music, Joan Armatrading singing ‘Love and Affection’. I’d never heard it before. Such sweet tones, bleeding out into the heat, reflecting off the water, echoing and contrasting, the way that summer does. And I was there, hot, watching, letting my body sink into the whole thing. I was really there man, uncorpsed, listening. It’s not often you’re present, totally. Some part of you always wanders off, to find a missing bit, because we’re fractured, you know, broken up, as if the relationship with ourselves has already gone bad.
So I heard this love song, at a time I wasn’t in love, at a time when I was, well, I was just myself. How often are we just ourselves? Phew. I don’t know. Validity is a strange concept. I remember seeing Snow White when I was seven or something. ‘Mirror mirror on the wall …’. Yeah. Maybe we’re like the troll under the hill who covers up his eyes and thinks everyone’s disappeared, in reverse, if you get what I mean. If he knew folks could see him then he’d know he existed. Tenuous. It’s all so fucking tenuous.
Love is tenuous.
I had this boyfriend once and I told him I loved him, he turned right around and said ‘You can’t love anyone until you learn to love yourself’. He wasn’t wrong. And there was this other guy. I said ‘I won’t let you break my heart.’ And he said ‘You’re already broken, I’m just playing with the pieces’.
I’ve carried this song with me for years because it’s mine. I don’t think you get to understand love by sucking it out of another person, no matter how soft and squelchy their neck is. No sir. Love is something you give, not something you take. It’s not about anyone else. But this is my song, my love song to myself. It’s precious to me for that reason. Because it’s self defining.
I’m forty this year. Forty fucking years old. Jesus, how did that happen? I heard it quite by accident last night, after midnight, full of red wine, half sitting on the sofa (we’ll avoid the word ’slumped’). And the span of everything in between: marriage, kids, various outbursts of debilitating insanity, the death of both of my parents, sometimes being broke, sometimes being flush, three cats, friends who’ve died. Life’s a tricky business innit? I heard it and just KNEW, I remembered. It’s not about being alone or self sufficient, it’s about knowing who you are and why you are, independent of everyone and anything else.
So, I’d like to dedicate this song to myself and all those of us who’ve made it, made it possible, because we understood what love was and what love wasn’t, because we dared to love ourselves and dared to do it by ourselves. It’s hard. Yeah. It’s really fucking hard. We weren’t wrong though, we just forgot somewhere along the line, what it meant to dance bare foot on hot concrete. It’s summer. Kick off your shoes.
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I never liked The Sound of Music. Don’t know why. Maybe it was the pitch of Julie Andrews’ voice, or it could’ve been an aversion to lederhosen; but, for some strange reason, the songs are familiar to me, comforting, ingrained, like dirt under my fingernails. So, to start at the beginning, because the beginning’s a very good place to start …
I’m fucked up man.
Last Saturday (14th June 2008) I did a series of rituals that could be described as ‘high magic’, one of which involved going down into the abyss, staring your crap old self in the face and then asking for healing from a servitor known as F*********. Except I forgot to do part II, thus ended up stuck in the abyss. Typical. I never listen properly. I always want to be trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. I think I feel most at home if the shit’s hitting the fan.
My friend Jenny, who should more properly be known as ‘my ex-friend Jenny’, said it’s quite normal for children who have had an abusive upbringing to hanker after further abuse. The theory is you feel safer in such an environment, because it’s familiar to you, therefore, comfy in a fucked up way. P’raps it’s a case of self-fulfilling prophecies. I don’t know. Funny really, or not, as she fucked me up more than anyone else who’s ever tried.
I’m going to begin with her and the legacy she left behind. We worked together for three years, every week, come rain or shine. Doesn’t really matter what we did. Doesn’t really matter why we did it. Things came to a head shortly before we were set to leave for a magical camp. For one reason or another I decided not to go. Life’s complex, but I’d identified an issue I couldn’t get round. “You’re a control freak,” I told her, after unsuccessfully attempting to articulate the problems in a more gentle way, “and I don’t trust you”.
Trust, when working magic, is a fundamental prerequisite. To a certain extent you lay yourself bare and, if you’re raw already, you need to know there’s a safety net of sorts. It’s not like being a kid and skinning your knees. Bad shit can happen. You can run into things you never expected. I have to work with people I know have got my back, in the same way as I’ve got theirs. Calling down demons, creating demons, well, it’s a risky business and you don’t need some half-wit operating on their own agenda.
We all got demons and they’re not just ‘out there’. As Delen, from Babylon 5, once said, ‘We are the universe manifest trying to understand itself’. External and internal are flexible paradigms. What’s in me affects what I see. What I encounter affects what’s in me. Basic, too basic perhaps. I’m a basic person. So, anyway, in a magical group we were trying to find a ‘demon’ to work with, blah blah, we invoked, each had a question to ask. Mine was ‘Where are you from?’. Jenny’s was ‘What’s your name?’. Pretty simple. She lied though. The answer she got was Thoth O****. Not being a fan of Crowley (that would be Aleister who wrote ‘The Book of Thoth’) she omitted to mention the first part of the ‘demon’s’ name. That’s a fairly large omission. Later she also didn’t tell us that she’d been fucking him, incubus style. It wouldn’t have mattered, except H**** M*******, another woman in the coven, was beginning to get hassled by this demon, sexually, in her dreams. It freaked her out. Of course, there was no protection in place as: firstly, we didn’t know this was even a possibility and secondly, we had no idea Jenny was feeding the fucker with sexual energy.
Now, make of this what you will. Maybe it’s all bollocks. Doesn’t matter. The concept of money is bollocks. It’s an abstract innit? You don’t stand there with a note in your hand imagining some bank somewhere really has the gold to back up your promise to the bearer. It’s just a piece of paper man. You decide that it’s real money, has real value. All the time we’re investing in a theoretical exchange, a combined lie, we’re happy to do this. It lubricates the wheels of commerce, industry, life. Always makes me laugh, when people talk about virtual reality then open their wallets and peel off another piece of paper they call money.
Back to the point, don’t want to lose the plot.
I called him in bed one night and he came, but so did she, The Morrigan, on her ghost horse, sword in hand, cut his head clean from his shoulders. It bounced along the track like a bloody football. I laughed. She makes me laugh. Don’t know what she sees in me. The Celts, they have this thing, that if your name’s still spoken then you don’t die. Perhaps I’m a conduit, telling of her, keeping her alive. Fair enough. She protects me. Like on Saturday, when I was stuck in the abyss, howling, crying my eyes out, all I had to do was put my hand round my wrist, where her tattoo of a snake curls, and she was there, in raven form, swooping on to my shoulder, digging her claws into my flesh, making me sit upright, telling me that I had called and she had answered so now was the time to stop my tears. Yeah and I did, because she was there, and when she’s there I’m safe.
The next thing that happened with Jenny was a curiosity. I argued we should kill Thoth *****, sever our link with him. She was not in favour of this, believing it to somehow stink of hierarchy and oppression. Fuck that. But she got her way, saying ‘If one person feels uncomfortable with an action then that action should not be undertaken’. I’m not as articulate as her. Simply leaving Thoth ***** made me feel uncomfortable, yet this issue wasn’t taken into account. I was one person, and according to her rules I should have had an equal voice, however, my discomfort was ignored.
The plan was to bury the git, take his totem, his artifacts, and inter them, so if we ever wanted to call him forth again we could. We boxed him up and took him to H********** H*** F***, dug a hole and placed him in the ground. While doing this I was disturbed. I saw things: bestial women dancing in crimson, dark shadows running like water, trees with thorns ripping cool, white flesh; but, such was my state of compromise I didn’t feel as if I could say anything. Entirely robbed of my ability to input, to speak of what I thought was needed, I remained silent and paid the price.
Once home, I quickly realised what the price was. I have three children. On the day my third child was due to be born I bought my husband, her father, a ring. I was walking, round Brighton, heavily pregnant, in the early stages of labour, when I saw this silver, worked into the shape of a baby in utero. It seemed perfect. I gave him the ring and within twelve hours I gave him another daughter, born at home, delivered by my own hands. Every day, for ten years, he wore that ring. He lost it when we buried Thoth *****. I knew the demon had taken it with him and I knew his anger was directed at me. This was something precious, representing my ability, as a woman, the woman called morrigan who had given birth to a daughter called Raven, to take and give care, to link with my partner, to be assured in her power, by token.
I hated him, and I hated the fact he’d been allowed to do this. Yes, I blamed Jenny, for lying about his name, for lying about fucking him, for standing in my way when I wanted to destroy him, but most of all for somehow engineering a situation whereby her needs were taken into account and mine were ignored. As the child of a English Professor, with a PhD herself, her communication skills are finely refined – a middle class education, combined with an intrinsic belief in her own validity, has resulted in superior articulation. But what pissed me off, beyond anything and everything else, was that she used anarchist ‘theory’ to push her point home. Despite the fact EVERYONE in the group agreed with my suggestion, Jenny constructed a convincing argument, based on a rejection of the majority in favour of recognition of the minority, in order to get her own way. This is a complete inversion of mutual respect and is, instead, yet again, a crass manipulation by the powerful to achieve their own ends.
And then she did it again. Earlier I mentioned that I felt I couldn’t go to a magical camp with her, or work magic with her, because she was (probably still is) a ‘control freak who I couldn’t trust’. Interestingly, this also became inverted, and when she returned from said magical camp she claimed she couldn’t work with me because she couldn’t trust me. Obviously, some ground work had to be laid to support this assertion and I found myself subject to several rather bizarre interventions by her ‘friends’. No matter. People will always believe what they want to believe. In some ways I feel sorry for these individuals. I’m only too well aware of Jenny’s modus operandi.
So why I am saying all this, two years later? It hurt, as I’ve only been hurt by a lover before. I used to wake nights, screaming and crying. To invest, time and energy wise, what I invested in her takes a big chunk of psychic energy. To realise that your investment has been mistaken, that you should have saved yourself both the pain and the effort, is somewhat difficult. The whole adventure, however, taught me a lot, about myself, about other people and, in particular, about the people I choose to work magic with. Unfortunately, once one’s confidence has been so dented, it’s hard to reassert oneself and gain a metaphoric foothold. Last thing I wanted to do was swing from yet another rope, abseiling down the side of a cliff, without safety equipment.
Has anyone noticed that I really like commas?
Part of building up a magical practice involves the acquisition of tools. Typically a witch will have a cauldron, a wand, an athame and a range of other items to be used in spell-work. I have a wand, which I made myself during a long a laborious process, also a cauldron. My athame is a fish gutting knife, given to me by my husband. I also have various fetishes, small statuettes, etc. I sewed my own robe. Keep a magical diary in a haphazard fashion (which isn’t good by the way, in terms of the haphazard). Thing is, some of these items were dirty because of their association with the whole Jenny phase. My cauldron, for example, had been used during several rites with her. Most notably my cord, hand dyed by myself and cut from the same length as Jenny and H**** M******* was not suitable. It’s difficult though, when something’s been so formative, how to dispose of that which limits you whilst retaining that which develops you. Obviously, the trickiest problem there is in identifying which is which. Ho hum.
It is said the phrase ‘cut down to size’ refers to the witch’s cord. Traditionally, the High Priest/ess in the coven would supply the witch with his/her cord when he/she was initiated. It was the measure of the witch, literally, spanning their height head to foot. If one did something to compromise their status within the coven, one would be cut down to size, ie their cord would be trimmed. As you can imagine, therefore, the cord is of primary importance. I had a cord and didn’t have a cord all at the same time. I didn’t know whether to destroy the one I’d made with Jenny and H M*******, or put it away, or carry on using it.
I think it’s probably one of the hardest things to do, understand what you should keep and what you should let go of. Despite the nihil in my name, I don’t want to destroy everything and everyone, only the stuff that holds me back. Some restrictions, however, are required, useful – even Crowley had his ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’. Stumbling blocks though. Things that stand in your way. When the kids were little I remember being told they prefer boundaries. They don’t want to come up against jelly walls. Similarly, I need to know where the edge of a cliff is. Distinctions and directions. It is impossible to make a decision unless one is faced with a choice, bearing in mind action and consequence.
When my dad died he asked to be buried at sea. They don’t throw whole corpses off boats, instead you’re required to cremate and place in a lead lined casket. The family lived in Birmingham at the time, and we had to travel to Portsmouth. We arrived early, via train, my mother, eldest sister and I, so decided to go for lunch. Lead is heavy, really bloody heavy. Mother suggested we leave him in a left luggage locker on the platform. I just couldn’t do that. He was my dad, this was his day, it seemed odd, surreal, to think of leaving him in Portsmouth station in a left luggage locker. I carried him, over my shoulder, in a sports bag, with ‘Head’ written on the outside in stylised letters. All my life the bastard had been on my back and now, even in death, he was busting me. The things you carry with you. What you think of as right and wrong. How far you go to make sense of a situation. I could have left him on the station platform. He wouldn’t have known. Not the point though. I would know. And once you know you can’t unknow. As my husband said later, much later, thirteen years later in fact, while we were sitting around a campfire, ‘Once your eyes have been opened it’s impossible to shut them again’. Oh to dream, to sleep, like a dog, with the occasional twitch, chasing rabbits, but once you’re awake it’s damn difficult to dream again, to shut your eyes, easy and comfortable, and be happy in the dark.
This is one of my problems. Half the things I’ve seen, half the places I’ve been, I had no business looking or being.
“Doe, a deer, a female deer
Ray, a drop of golden sun
Me, a name I call myself
Far, a long, long way to run”
We sat a while, watching the flames. I’d collected fir cones earlier, because of a vague remembrance of pretty burnings. It is better, yes better and I don’t give a damn what you think about my value judgements, to abandon haste and bitterness. Mother, poor mother, with her cancers and secrecy. “You will know,” she said, but I don’t believe she knew what I would know.
There are as many different types of magic as there are people. I like slack handed magic myself; maybe that’s because I’m slack jawed and slack disciplined, maybe it’s because I feel magic should be in the moment, one of life’s little bubbles, showing me a rainbow right before it bursts. He’d brought my cauldron, filled with his things. I hadn’t used it for some time, not being comfortable with its associations. The cauldron, so redolent of Cerridwen, “Stir this,” she said, “and do not spill a drop”. But Taliesin was curious and it went the way of all curiosity demanding to be sated. Her belly, the seed of his desire. We, they, I mean you can call them mistakes, perhaps it’s just instinct, whatever that is, or need.
Nietzsche said “Every extension of knowledge arises from making the conscious unconscious”, this is also a method of magical working, to let things slide into the places between the gaps. Between the gaps? I’m not sure that’s possible. The gap is the gap. There is no ‘between the gaps’. In any event, the issue is one of forgetting in order to not muddy the magic with remembering. Memory is faulty. It plays tricks. It will elaborate the truth and veil a lie. And memory is also of the moment, created instantly only to then find itself manipulated by the benefit of hindsight. I’m as guilty as the next man or woman. Essentially, then, nothing has any value, or more precisely, no thing. With that in mind, or put out of mind, perhaps in this non existent space, between the gaps, it’s possible to work magic, or let magic work, minus the performative.
This is why Solstice is important to me and other pagans. The sun rises in a moment, before this event it is not dark, after this event it is not broad daylight, yet because of this event there is a determination. On this side night. On this side day. In between? So much in between, especially at Stonehenge. Over five thousand years and we’ve forgotten the who, what, when, where and how. Vague stabs in the dark. We cannot say with certainty. Lost in the mists of time.
I stirred the cauldron with his athame. Made me smile. My fat bellied pot, his sharp knife. Looked like a kind of fucking. He gave it a stir. We set fire to the things inside, things that had been waiting to be gone, waiting to go back to the darkness, because they needed to make room for the things waiting to come from the light. Everything fades though, becomes a shadow of its former self, dances on the walls of caves, stretched by flames, towers then surrenders, burns itself out or disappears in the cold light of day.
For a long time I watched the smoke, threaded with incense so it smelled sweet. I’m not very good at letting go, maybe practice doesn’t make perfect. My parents, they were always and forever going away. I’ve said goodbye in at least thirty different airports. I used to cry, never in front of them, no, brave warrior girl I was, instead in bed, at the end of every day, quiet tears, all choked back, right down in my throat, so I could open my mouth and shout without any words coming out. Then I learned how to open my mouth and shout with words coming out. “You’re so aggressive.” Yeah. It’s not a lifestyle choice I’ve made. Perhaps it is. If I didn’t want to I could stop. I used to dream about cutting into my own head. Once I heard about how they slice off the top of monkeys’ skulls in Japan so they can eat the brains still warm. Probably some racist bullshit. Would be cool though. To slice off the top of your own skull, rather my skull, and perform radical brain surgery, hooked up to a computer, so I could see the direct and indirect results, tinker about if as I was a circuit board, rearranging the resistors – don’t know what the other bits are called, I shoulda listened more, but she, the physics teacher, kept talking about falling bodies and all I could think about was feathers and stones and terminal velocity and how that couldn’t be right. They tell you some weird shit at school.
Life’s like this for me. I stagger about in a sea of inconsistency. I can’t figure it out. Glimpses is the best I can manage, riding on a train, watching another one flash by, almost catching the sight of someone’s face, trying to commit it to memory, as if I could own that piece of thing that just happened.
I’m so far off the point now.
Take these broken wings.
The kids came with us this year. They’ve always asked and we’ve always said no; but, I mean you can’t say no forever, not simply because it’s difficult or they’re going to be in the way. Sunrise at the Henge, with all those people, partying hard. Thousands of years. What do you tie yourself to, in this life? I got stuff. I got big, fucking cart-loads of stuff, mostly crap. Hey, did you hear, about Wavy Gravy (or it coulda been Wavy Davy) and Jimi Hendrix? He (Wavy) had tons of Hendrix’s stuff, and then his (Wavy’s) house burned down. “Oh my God,” the interviewer said, ‘what did you do?’ And Wavy said ‘Nothing, there was nothing to be done, it was just stuff. Stuff comes and stuff goes, that is the way of stuff’. Excellent. You can’t say fairer than that.
My eldest daughter left home about a month ago. There was no big argument or anything, she wanted to move in with her boyfriend. I miss her, you know. I complained about trying to get her out of bed in the morning. Now, I’d love to see her sleepy face, fifth time over, with me standing in the doorway, shouting that it’s time to get up. She took her stuff with her, clothes, bits and bobs. There’s a big space in the house, she used to fill up with her mammoth teenager presence, attitude. It’s like there’s a hole in my life, a Rosa shaped hole, and nothing else can fill it up. I miss the toast crumbs on the kitchen counter, the milk left out of the fridge, her shoes cluttering up the lounge. “Airports have lounges dear, houses have sitting rooms.” Yes mother.
So there I was, in a high magic ritual last Saturday, down in my abyss, grief stricken about my daughter, finally understanding something about my own mother, not knowing what to do to heal this wound, calling on The Morrigan, wondering how I’d cope taking my kids to the Henge. Little things, big things, the devil being in the detail and the detail being overwhelming. And here I am now, after splurging over three and a half thousand words, perhaps some the wiser, still able to smell the woods-moke off of my sweater, skirt hitched up to my thighs, boots covered in dry mud, sucking back red wine as if there’s no tomorrow, waiting for a phone call. What did I learn? That I love my husband. Of course, I already knew this, but I get sorta lost from time to time, in the sewerage of existence. Hard to love when life keeps chucking shit at you. That I loved Jenny. A path is a path is a path. We walked some way together and I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without her. I miss the fucking shit out of her and I’m still mad as hell at her, but yeah, let that which is of the darkness return to the darkness. We’re maybe dark people. And let that which is of the light come from the light. It’s good, all good.
I think everyone should watch a sunrise. Stonehenge is just a place, albeit one with an immense history of human energy, but, in the final analysis, it’s not about that, it’s not about a vampiric feeding frenzy, merely a place to stand. Where do you stand? On a daily basis? Me? I’m knee deep in mud and shit. “Ray, a drop of golden sun.” Sometimes.
“People,” said Isabelle, “are like milk, don’t you think?”
“Milk?” said Laura.
“Yes. Have you ever drunk milk freshly drawn from a cow?”
Laura shook her head, “Not as far as I know”.
“Oh, you’d most certainly remember. Quite delightful. Like a baby, completely unmitigated. And then they take it and pasteurise it. God knows why anyone wants to drink that skimmed stuff, worse still homogenised. Dreadful.”
“Everyone’s concerned about their fat intake,” said Laura.
“And yet they carry on getting fatter,” said Isabelle. “Children are pasteurised. They start off with muddy knees and messy hair, running around in the back garden, naked as the day they were born, until we send them to school. By the age of eight or nine they’re quite curdled with order. I regret that. Somehow we process the life out of them, separate the cream from milk, until everything is thinner, watered down. Do you remember gold top?”
“No,” said Laura.
“It was before plastic, when milk used to come in bottles. And what were those cardboard containers called, they had a special name? The man who invented them made millions. You had to peel back the wings and then fold out the spout. Never bloody worked. I always ended up tearing the damn things”
“I don’t know,” said Laura.
Isabelle sat back and looked at her granddaughter. “Sour cream,” she said, watching the young woman’s eyes staring through the French windows and into the garden. “You used to play out there.”
“I remember … with Peter …” Laura bit her lip.
“Swinging on that old tyre hanging from the silver birch, Sheba barking at you, trying to herd you as if you were sheep.”
A small, sad smile crept onto Laura’s face.
“And Grandpa,” Isabelle let out a long sigh, “pottering about in his greenhouse with those bloody orchids”.
“Phalaenopsis,” said Laura.
“Quite,” replied Isabelle.
The two women sat opposite each other, Isabelle in a high-backed armchair, Laura on the couch. It had been a while since they last met, three, maybe four, years. Laura had moved from Birling to live with her boyfriend in Australia. That didn’t work out as expected; but, for one reason and another, she didn’t come home, not on a permanent basis.
“How’s your mother?” said Isabelle.
“You know …”
“Yes, too wrapped up in her own …” The older woman checked herself. “She always did take everything terribly personally.”
Laura tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. “Do you still keep the kitchen garden?”
“Not as I’d like. Ted comes up from the village and gives it a quick once over every month. He takes most of the herbs and vegetables back with him. Age is a funny thing, so full of life that you can’t possibly manage anymore yet no capacity to actually live.”
Laura looked at the floor, her gaze following the patterns on the rug.
“At least people indulge you,” said Isabelle. “When one’s old, one’s afforded the luxury of wittering. Memory becomes story becomes history.”
A woman with carefully coiffured blonde hair popped her head round the sitting room door. “You two all right in here? Do you want some tea or anything? The vicar’s going shortly, I expect he’ll want to say his goodbyes and pass on his sympathies.”
Laura nodded to her mother.
“We’re fine thank you Jennifer,” said Isabelle. “Send the penguin in as and when.”
“I thought that was nuns,” said Laura, “penguins?”
“Ah, another privilege of age, errors are just silly mistakes.”
“Do you think he did it by mistake?”
“No,” said Isabelle, “I think Peter did it quite on purpose”.
“But I don’t understand why,” said Laura.
“You don’t need to. It’s not about you, or your mother, or me, or my mother. It was his decision, one he took on his own and executed on his own.”
“But he could’ve talked to me.”
“He didn’t want to talk to you,” said Isabelle. “He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Some of us are talkers, some of us are doers. Unfortunately, Peter falls, or rather fell, into the latter category.”
“How can you be so …?”
“Dry? Philosophical? Unemotional? Of course I’m not. He was my grandson. I loved him. Do you remember the time he took a tumble into those nettles at the bottom of the garden?”
“Yes. He was climbing the apple tree,” said Laura.
“Poor little sod. I told him not to eat the cooking apples, but he didn’t listen, writhed around for hours with belly ache afterwards. He was such a headstrong boy. Do you recall how I treated the nettle stings?”
“No,” said Laura.
“More nettles. You have to really grasp them, strip the leaves off, open up the stems and pull out the pith. What injures you most awfully can also ease the pain.”
Laura rose. “I think I might get some air in the garden Grandma.”
“Sounds like a good idea, my girl.”
I don’t like silence, it bothers me. The worst sort of silence is the one that descends at four in the morning. Leonard Cohen was right. Somewhere between night and day totality gets ripped. Falling into sleep, worrying about all the things I’ve done and not done, I started to feel suffocated, as if my face was covered in thin, black rubber. Quite still. Deathly silence. And then there was a man, with a rough bladed dagger, cutting the rubber. A cocoon? No, I wasn’t going to emerge like a butterfly and unfold my vernix wings.
The radio played scattered news reports from around the world and an interview with Ravi Shankar. I listened to Yehudi Menuhin and his violin. Such a sad sound. I thought about Primo Levi, the man who ‘died at Auschwitz forty years’ before he committed suicide. An American, drawling, nasal, began to talk about Hezbollah and how they had returned the remains of two Israeli soldiers.
The remains, in the remains of the night, the remains of a nightmare, the beginning of a new one, of a new day.
My father went to War. Twice. The first time as a sailor. The second time, I guess, as a mercenary. He never came back. Sure, his body, still pulsing and breathing, arrived at home, but in his head he was always somewhere else, with a secret terror, perhaps even a thrill. When he got drunk, which happened fairly often, he’d spring up, suddenly animated, and show me, amongst other things. how to quickly take a blade out of your sock and stab a man to death. He carried this weapon, strapped to his ankle, until he was well into his sixties. Unusually, for an English man, he also had guns and was a proficient marksman. He preferred his knives though, and fists. Close quarters. I think he liked the damage, that raw, cruel damage. Or maybe he just couldn’t avoid it and this was his way of trying to control it. Don’t get me wrong, my father was not a thug, there was nothing mindless about his violence, all of it was guaranteed to ensure you got hurt a lot more than he ever would. He didn’t have the capacity for pain. I saw him do things to himself. His relationship to pain … masochistic … sadistic …
and our heroes all died crazy
broken, poor or shot
let’s celebrate their tragedy
and sanctify the loss
and manifest the daydream
like those who fell before
and glorify our small attempts
and hate ourselves no more
One of the first writing jobs I ever had was to produce an article about tracing the war dead. It made sense to me to start with the story of my own uncle, Neil Kirkwood Devlin. Having joined up before the Second World War, he was an officer in the Royal Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Born some twenty five years after his death, I never knew him, except for the stories my mother would tell. He was her favourite brother; a strapping handsome man, thick black hair, always laughing and joking about, even when she fell off a five bar gate and cut her head open. He stitched it back together for her and gave Frank, another of her brothers, a good telling off. Small things, simple things, life is made up of these skin and bone patchworks.
Once every so often she would get his cap and cane out of her wardrobe and sit on the edge of her bed and cry, thirty years after he died, forty years, fifty years. A survivor told them, her family, what had happened. Trapped by the Japanese in Singapore, suffering from heat exhaustion, subject to a catastrophic pincer movement, diseased and desperate, they surrendered. The officers were buried, vertical, their heads remaining above ground, and left to … left … to die, in front of their men.
I found his memorial, an unobtrusive, stone, pyramid structure covered in names. So clean. It relieved her, to see the nearest thing she could to a grave. And then she showed me his picture. Sixty five years she had carried it around in her wallet. There he was, standing, in full uniform, his hand on the back of a chair, looking straight at the camera, as was the woman seated on the chair, the Japanese woman. “Who’s that?” I asked.
“His wife, Nancy.”
The other family member I researched was Charles Holmes, my husband’s great uncle. Charles died in the First World War, in France, in horrible conditions, like so many other men, thousands of other men, millions of other men. When I was at school my best friend’s grandfather, Ted, helped us with a history project. I remember him telling me about how he crawled off the battlefield at Somme. Fourteen years old. The wounded snaked their way through the trenches to the ‘hospital’, holding on to the man in front. Ted had lost a foot; the man behind him his face.
No one knew Charles, all that remains of his brief sojourn on this earth is a photograph. It’s an interesting shot. Again, full uniform, including the obligatory officer’s moustache, riding breeches and long, leather boots. Because the picture is sepia, I imagine the boots to be brown. Again, looking directly at the camera, but this time there’s no chair and no woman, instead a curtain behind him. It’s a hurried construction. The curtain doesn’t entirely reach to the floor, and where it does, it’s lopsided. This isn’t a studio shot, it’s an army shot, taken before he left, so that people had something to remember him by, while he was away, after he was dead …
The remains of two soldiers.
Archaeologists in Fromelles, northern France, have found the mass graves of thousands of Allied troops, mainly Australians. The battle of Fromelles, fought on 19 July 1916, was supposed to divert German attention from the Somme, but it didn’t work. Instead, Allied forces ran into heavily fortified German lines and sustained losses that are estimated at around seven thousand men in a little over twenty four hours.
The Battle of Iwo Jima commenced on 19 February 1945. Twenty one thousand soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army sought to defend their strategic position. After thirty five days twenty thousand seven hundred and three had either died as a result of their injuries or by their own hand in ritual suicide. Allied forces suffered nearly seven thousand fatalities.
two soldiers, close quarters, raw, cruel damage.